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Migration Event: When did the first humans arrive in Britain?

By Josie Mills, on 24 February 2019

You may have noticed that UCL Museum’s current theme is ‘migration’, a topic that hits the headlines daily. Unstable climates and widespread political and socioeconomic unrest are forcing people to move, seeking safety and security. Migration is not a new concept in our human story, Homo sapiens initially evolved in Africa, with the population we are closely related to leaving around 60,000 years ago. This migration event led H. sapiens to encounter established Neanderthal populations in the Middle East before becoming established further into Europe and Asia. However movement outside Africa occurred prior to this as early as 300,000 kya in Morocco and 180,000 kya in the Near East. Evidence of this movement within and beyond the African Continent indicates that prehistoric migration occurred frequently in different circumstances and likely related to changes and continuity in surrounding ecology, for example climate and environment. However, migration is not strictly reserved for anatomically modern humans, other hominin species lived and moved across different landscapes; for example, although Neanderthals evolved from a common ancestor outside of Africa, they were a predominantly European species.

As part of the ‘migration’ theme the Student Engager team recently put on an put on an evening event where we discussed how our research is linked to human movement. As a researcher who focuses on aspects of human evolution, migration and people moving through landscapes is a constant consideration of mine. The behaviour of prehistoric hunter gatherers was intrinsically linked to their environment, as they relied on resource availability and survival in changing climates. During the Pleistocene, climate fluctuated significantly, and people migrated to survive. Due to a dependence on unpredictable subsistence resources, geographical features like rivers and coastlines played an important part in how hominins moved – humans can survive without food for 3 weeks but only 3-4 days without water. Food resources were also important influencing hominins to move alongside flora and fauna, for example following megafauna in order to scavenge from their prey’s carcasses (Palmqvist and Arribas 1999).

A glacial river valley in North Yorkshire. Riparian corridors and conduits were (and still are) important migratory routes for humans. They cut through difficult terrain and provide predictable resources (authors own image).

Britain is an interesting case when looking at examples of human migration as it is located on the very edge of the European continent at a northerly latitude. During the Ice Age, Britain experienced extremes of climate and regularly became inhospitable or impossible to access. The earliest evidence of humans in Britain is found at Happisburgh in Norfolk, where lithic artefacts and fauna have eroded from coastal deposits (Parfitt et al. 2010). The site is dated to > 850,000 years old, with environmental data suggesting a relatively cold climate at the time of occupation. The Happisburgh site is particularly significant as it has pushed back the estimate of human presence in Northern Europe. It is also the location of the oldest hominin footprints located outside of Africa.  In neighbouring Suffolk lies another site, Pakefield, which is dated to 700,000 years old, with fauna and environmental data suggesting a Mediterranean climate. No hominin remains have been recovered from these sites; however, the dates, human-made tools, and the size of the hominin footprints may indicate a Homo antecessor or a similar hominin (Ashton et al. 2014).

A few hundred thousand years later, we see a new player enter the scene. Homo heidlbergensis arrives at Boxgrove, Sussex. Here, hominin remains have been recovered: a tibia (shin bone) and two teeth (Roberts et al. 1994; Stringer et al. 1998). The archaeological assemblage at Boxgrove is particularly striking because the debris left behind by humans was covered rapidly by slow-flowing water and silt. This process preserved hominin activity at a high resolution, even preserving the outline of a flint knapper’s knees (got to love that “Pompeii” effect). The site is dated to around 500,000 years ago (Roberts et al. 1994).

After the relatively warm climate of H. heidlbergensis, Britain experienced a very cold glacial, known as the Anglian. As far as we know no humans were able to survive in this hostile environment. However, this glaciation was particularly important in Britain’s prehistory. Extensive ice sheets influenced the courses of several major European rivers, funnelling them into a large lake in an area now submerged by the North Sea. As the glaciation came to an end, the water level in the lake was supplemented by glacial melt water and this increased pressure caused the breach of the Weald-Artois anticline, a raised ridge of chalk stretching between England and France. For the first time Britain became an Island!

Newhaven Chalk with the Seven Sister’s Seaford Chalk formation in the distance. The Chalk of the South Coast once connected Britain to France by a land bridge that was destroyed by glacial meltwater around 450,000 years ago.

Although now an island during periods of high sea level, for much of the Pleistocene cooler climates meant Britain was linked to Europe by an area called Doggerland. Doggerland formed a terrestrial land bridge between East Anglia and the Dutch coastline and was an important routeway from the central European continent to its western fringes. People were also able to cross the Channel River, which was created by the flooding at the end of the Anglian. Around 400,000 years ago these terrestrial areas were crossed by another species of hominin, H. neanderthalensis. The first early Neanderthal fossil found in Britain was excavated at Swanscombe, Kent. It is composed of three fragments of crania, which were found separately in 1935, 1936 (Marston 1967) and 1955 (Wymer 1955). There are lots of other sites with stone tools made by Neanderthals, such as Baker’s Hole and Lynford Quarry (Ashton et al. 2016). This indicates a stable and consistent presence of these newcomers; the Neanderthals were here to stay!

Post 400,000 years Britain was visited on and off by hominins that had access via land bridges when the climate permitted. Never viewed as a destination, Britain simply represented an extent of territory that was intermittently hospitable; for example, between 160 – 80, 000 years ago the hostile environment recurred and there is no evidence for humans. Incidentally archaeologists have discovered a lot of giant bear remains from this time. It seems bears adapted well to a human-less Britain, expanding their ecological niche (bears and humans have very similar tastes) and becoming massive! H. sapiens (aka anatomically modern humans) didn’t make it to Britain until 40, 000 years ago (Higham et al. 2011) – about 800,000 years after the island saw its first human visitors. There is evidence of H. sapiens at several sites, including Kent’s Cavern and the later dated Gough’s Cave. These humans were highly mobile, adaptable, and carried a distinctive material culture (fun fact: some of them were also cannibals!).

But it isn’t until 10,000 years ago that a population of humans reach Britain and persist to survive in such a consistent way that they contribute to modern DNA. Cheddar Man, found in a cave at Cheddar Gorge, Somerset, is a very well-preserved skeleton of a person that lived in the area 10,000 years ago. Due to the high-quality nature of preservation, the skeleton of Cheddar Man retained DNA that could be used to reconstruct his genome (Brace et al. 2018). This work, published by the Natural History Museum, revealed the population he came from had a Middle Eastern origin. The phenotypic data indicates that he had dark skin and hair, and blue eyes. Comparison with the genomes of humans living today with British ancestry suggests Cheddar Man’s population contributed their DNA to ours and we retain around 10%.

A reconstruction of Cheddar Man made for the Natural History Museum by the Kennis Brothers (Image: The Natural History Museum via The Guardian)

However, a new population came to Britain in the form of the Beaker People who arrived around 4,500 years ago. The Beaker people are particularly easy to trace because they buried their dead with a specific type of pot or beaker. A large project studied the DNA of approximately 200 Beaker skeletons, concluding that these people originated in central Europe (Olalde et al. 2018). This data is supported archaeologically by the spread of the distinctive beaker burials. The DNA analysis also revealed that Beaker People had a range of skin and eye colours that wouldn’t be uncommon in Britain today. They thrived in western Europe, almost completely replacing the h. sapiens living there previously, and many modern British people are directly related to them.

So, if we total it up, that’s four different types of hominin – antecessor, heidlbergensis, neanderthalensis, sapiens – across around 850,000 years, travelling over land bridges, chalk ridges, and rivers. Following warming climates and resources or retreating from cooling climates. Human presence and absence controlled by geography, geology, sea level, and a climate that was ultimately influenced by the turning of the earth’s axis. The people most related to modern Britons arrived as migrants from Central Europe 4,500 years ago, a drop in the ocean if you consider the first hominin made stone tool dates to approximately 3 million years ago (Semaw et al. 1997). Our British society today encompasses people from all over the world demonstrating an important diversity that is reflected in its complicated human past. For most of its long (pre)history Britain was not an Island and the only hostile environments were driven by climate, not politics..


Arribas, Alfonso & Palmqvist, Paul. (1999). On the Ecological Connection Between Sabre-tooths and Hominids: Faunal Dispersal Events in the Lower Pleistocene and a Review of the Evidence for the First Human Arrival in Europe. Journal of Archaeological Science – J ARCHAEOL SCI. 26. 571-585. 10.1006/jasc.1998.0346.

Ashton, N., Lewis, S.G., De Groote, I., Duffy, S.M., Bates, M., Bates, R., Hoare, P., Lewis, M., Parfitt, S.A., Peglar, S. and Williams, C., 2014. Hominin footprints from early Pleistocene deposits at Happisburgh, UK. PLoS One, 9(2), p.e88329.

Brace, S., Diekmann, Y., Booth, T.J., Faltyskova, Z., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Ferry, M., Michel, M., Oppenheimer, J., Broomandkhoshbacht, N. and Stewardson, K., 2018. Population replacement in early Neolithic Britain. BioRxiv, p.267443.

Hershkovitz, I., Weber, G.W., Quam, R., Duval, M., Grün, R., Kinsley, L., Ayalon, A., Bar-Matthews, M., Valladas, H., Mercier, N. and Arsuaga, J.L., 2018. The earliest modern humans outside Africa. Science, 359(6374), pp.456-459.

Higham, T., Compton, T., Stringer, C., Jacobi, R., Shapiro, B., Trinkaus, E., Chandler, B., Gröning, F., Collins, C., Hillson, S. and O’higgins, P., 2011. The earliest evidence for anatomically modern humans in northwestern Europe. Nature479(7374), p.521.

Hublin, J.J., Ben-Ncer, A., Bailey, S.E., Freidline, S.E., Neubauer, S., Skinner, M.M., Bergmann, I., Le Cabec, A., Benazzi, S., Harvati, K. and Gunz, P., 2018. New fossils from Jebel Irhoud, Morocco and the pan-African origin of Homo sapiens (vol 546, pg 289, 2017). Nature, 558(7711), pp.E6-E6.

Marston, A.T., 1937. The Swanscombe skull. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 67, pp.339-406.

Olalde, I., Brace, S., Allentoft, M.E., Armit, I., Kristiansen, K., Booth, T., Rohland, N., Mallick, S., Szécsényi-Nagy, A., Mittnik, A. and Altena, E., 2018. The Beaker phenomenon and the genomic transformation of northwest Europe. Nature, 555(7695), p.190.

Parfitt, S.A., Ashton, N.M., Lewis, S.G., Abel, R.L., Coope, G.R., Field, M.H., Gale, R., Hoare, P.G., Larkin, N.R., Lewis, M.D. and Karloukovski, V., 2010. Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe. Nature, 466(7303), p.229.

Roberts, M.B., Stringer, C.B. and Parfitt, S.A., 1994. A hominid tibia from Middle Pleistocene sediments at Boxgrove, UK. Nature, 369(6478), p.311.

Semaw, Sileshi & Renne, Paul & W. K. Harris, J & S Feibel, C & Bernor, Raymond & Fesseha, N & Mowbray, K. (1997). 2.5-Million-Year-Old Stone Tools from Gona, Ethiopia. Nature. 385. 333-6. 10.1038/385333a0.

Stringer, C.B., Trinkaus, E., Roberts, M.B., Parfitt, S.A. and Macphail, R.I., 1998. The middle Pleistocene human tibia from Boxgrove. Journal of human evolution, 34(5), pp.509-547.

Wymer, J., 1955. A further fragment of the Swanscombe skull. Nature, 176(4479), p.426.

What are the Oldest Artefacts in Egypt?

By Josie Mills, on 21 September 2018

The oldest artefacts in the Petrie Museum weren’t made by the Ancient Egyptians or at least the people we associate with pyramids, mummies and hieroglyphs. They may look unassuming, but these amber coloured stones are handaxes that were made by our human ancestors around half a million years ago. These are my favourite artefacts in the museum even though they aren’t shiny or gilded but because they shed light on hominin behaviour in Egypt before the Egyptians.

These stone tools were made by hominins who lived in Egypt around half a million years ago, making them around 495,000 years older than the earliest ‘Egyptians’! It’s likely that Egypt was occupied by hominins during cooler periods when river systems and vegetation provided a suitable habitat. Lots of these handaxes were found on river terraces suggesting these waterways were an important part of life. Petrie Museum accession numbers: UC 13572 UC75136 UC13579 UC13527 left to right. (Author’s own image)


Archaeologists call this type of artefact a lithic, which means ‘made of stone’, usually flint or other siliceous rock. Flint is a very hard rock that is part of the chert family and is particularly useful for making tools because it fractures like glass creating very sharp edges. Stone tools are a very important record left behind by hominins and they are often the only thing we find on stone age sites because they preserve well and don’t decay. Handaxes, also called bifaces, are a particularly recognisable tool because of their distinctive shape.

Handaxe is a term we use to describe a stone tool that has been shaped bifacially (on both sides) by the removal of flint flakes, a process called knapping. There are lots of different shapes of handaxe; for example, those that are more oval are called ovate handaxes whereas those with a wider butt (technical term!) and shaped to a point are called ficrons. They were used throughout the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic.


This is an example of a ficron handaxe. A lot of ficrons are made on pebbles, often from flint cobbles transported by rivers or glaciers. Here you can see that the natural shape of the pebble has been used as the base of the handaxe with the remaining portion knapped into a point. (Image credit: The Portable Antiquities Scheme/ © The Trustees of the British Museum)


It’s likely that handaxes had many different uses but were primarily employed to process carcasses, enabling hominins to get the most meat possible from the animals they hunted or scavenged. It’s thought that they were also used to dig for tubers and process organic materials. The shape of the tool meant that they could be easily re-sharpened by removing the blunted edge revealing sharp flint underneath. This ability to rejuvenate the tool means that handaxes were highly portable tools that could be shaped and adapted on the move.


This handaxe is from the Middle Palaeolithic site La Cotte a La Chèvre on Jersey. It is relatively small and has probably been re-sharpened multiple times. During the Middle Palaeolithic the landscape to the north of Jersey was used by highly mobile Neanderthals hunting and gathering. It’s likely that this handaxe was part of a Neanderthal tool-kit and may have been discarded at the cave because it had been re-sharpened so much it was too small to use! (Image Credit: Jersey Heritage)


The idea that handaxes were made by humans rather than environmental or supernatural processes was popularised by John Frere in 1800. Frere discovered an assemblage of handaxes and animal bones in a gravel deposit at the site of Hoxne in Sussex. Although Frere was the first to publish this idea others before him, for example John Conyers who was present at the discover of the Gray’s Inn Handaxe in 1679, had suggested it but not been taken seriously. Prior to the 19th Century the origin of handaxes was often explained through folklore, they were often called ‘thunder stones’, the lithified remnants of lightning bolts, or ‘elf-shot’, the preserved remains of tiny weapons.


This is the handaxe found at the Gray’s Inn Road site by John Conyers in 1679. (Image credit: © The Trustees of the British Museum)


Although it’s generally accepted that handaxes are a practical tool, there are several instances of bifaces that are simply too big to function. This handaxe (below) discovered at Furze Platt in Maidenhead, UK, is around 30cm long and would have been very heavy! These oversized axes led to the theory that bifaces influenced sexual selection; the larger your handaxe, the more proficient you were at provisioning resources and important raw material. In this scenario your giant handaxe suggests that you are a great option for a partner or somebody to have children with! Equally it has been suggested that these larger handaxes were status symbols hinting at social hierarchy. However, these types of behaviours are hard to reconstruct in the past and these theories are definitely not set in stone.


The Furze Platt handaxe. (Image Credit: © Trustees of NHM)


Overall, it’s evident that handaxes were very useful in the prehistoric—but even back then it seems hominins also found the tools aesthetically pleasing… I’ll leave you with this beauty.


This handaxe was made around 500 – 300, 000 years ago and was found at West Tofts in Norfolk, UK. It appears that the knapper has carefully preserved the outline of a shell in the cortex, the calcareous outer surface of flint. (Image Copyright: Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology Cambridge. Museum ID 1916.82/Record 2)


Follow this link for a 3D model of the artefact: https://sketchfab.com/models/343ae7d92a384327aebec8f0ec8e5e54

Mammoths and Magdalenians: A Summer in the Ice Age

By Josie Mills, on 30 August 2017

This August I swapped the busy streets of London for the beaches and archaeology on the island of Jersey, which is located close to the Normandy coastline in the English Channel. Jersey is an incredibly archaeologically-rich location with many prehistoric and historic sites of interest. The project that I work with is called Ice Age Island (twitter hashtag: #iceageisland) and we are particularly focused on archaeological deposits from the Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites on the island.

Jersey is currently an island but during cooler periods of the Pleistocene (Ice Age), when sea level fell, it regularly became part of the larger Channel landmass of the Continental Shelf. The Ice Age Island team are a group of researchers and students focused on unravelling this part of the island’s past by exploring terrestrial sites on the island but also investigating how humans used the wider, now submerged, landscape that surrounded it. Currently work is focused on reconstructing geological and topographical mapping of the Continental Shelf and also working out how artefacts from the sites we are excavating and studying can contribute to our understanding of behaviour in the offshore area.

3 maps

Fig 1. A map showing the location of Jersey and the other Channel Islands. Numbered locations refer to Middle Palaeolithic sites in the area: 1= Le Rozel, 2= La Cotte a la Chèvre, 3 = La Cotte de St. Brelade, 4 = Mont Dol

My PhD is focused during the Middle Palaeolithic of Jersey when Neanderthals visited the island, particularly the site of La Cotte de St. Brelade on the south-west coast. La Cotte is a sheltered cave-like area formed within a granite t-shaped ravine system and has recorded Neanderthal activity intermittently from around 240,000 to 40,000 years ago. The work that I do helps to contribute to the understanding of how Neanderthals interacted with the offshore landscape, particularly where they got the raw material needed to make stone artefacts from. The use of stone, particularly flint, to make tools was key to survival for Neanderthals. Tools made from stone were used for activities like hunting, food processing, and preparing hides—giving access to food, nutrition, defence, and warmth. Flint presence and absence fluctuates in the deposits at La Cotte and by understanding differences in the types of raw materials in the different archaeological layers we hope to reconstruct a model of the availability of different sources; this will in turn shed light on Neanderthal behaviour in the wider landscape. So this summer I’ve swapped three museums for one museum archive in Jersey where I have been analysing flint tools from La Cotte!

High def CSB

Fig 2: View into the t-shaped ravine system at La Cotte de St. Brelade (own image)

However Ice Age Island is made up of multiple strands of investigation and the most active is the archaeological training dig and field school, which UCL has been involved in for seven excavation seasons. The site is run by Dr Ed. Blinkhorn (Senior Archaeologist UCL and Archaeology South East), and supported by supervisors and students from different universities. Excavation is focused on the Magdalenian (a time period spanning 17,000 – 12,000 years ago) site of Les Varines, where the archaeological deposits are dated to approximately 14,000 years ago.


Fig 3. Students and staff working at the excavation during the site open day (own image)

The current interpretation is that the site represents a hunter-gatherer camp where Magdalenian people lived for some parts of the year. Located at the sheltered apex of a wide valley system the site would have been a prime position for tracking migrating animals, like deer and horse, in the landscape below. However the story of Les Varines has changed through the seven years the site has been excavated. Initially the artefacts that were found appeared disturbed by post-depositional processes and were not excavated in the original position they were left by the Magdalenian people. This limited the behavioural inference that could be taken from the artefacts. However as new trenches and test pits were put in, guided by geophysical survey, areas of intact Upper Palaeolithic archaeology were discovered!

This year has been a really exciting excavation season as the type of finds being made have diversified from flint tools to include a mammoth tooth and multiple constructed hearth areas. This allows a much more varied picture of life at the site, demonstrating different activities the Magdalenian people were carrying out!


Ed Blinkhorn and Letty Ingrey (UCL/ Archaeology South East) talking about the potential mammoth tooth find


UCL MSc Palaeolithic Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology students Leah and Fiona discussing uncovering the Magdalenian Hearth Features

So if you haven’t seen my in a museum for a while – that’s what I’ve been up to!